The tragic death of Ukrainian cinematographer Halyna Hutchins who was accidentally shot and killed by Alec Baldwin on the U.S. set of western “Rust” couldn’t have happened in Europe due to more restrictive regulations around gun safety on movie sets than in parts of the U.S., say several top European weapons masters.
Speaking from the Romanian set of the Sky spaghetti western TV series “Django,” Ricci — a veteran weapons master who also worked on hit Neapolitan mob show “Gomorrah” (pictured) — underlined that when it comes to using guns on set, the fundamental difference between safety rules in the U.S. and Italy, alongside several other European countries, is that weapons are required to be “plugged.”
“In Italy, there is legislation that says a plug has to be inserted in the gun’s barrel,” Ricci said, adding that the same rule is applied on sets in Spain and Romania. “The law says…this has to be checked and certified by a national authority.”
With a plug in the barrel, the worst that can happen is that “the weapon explodes,” Ricci added. Nobody gets killed.
As Italian special effects supervisor Maurizio Corridori –– who handled weapons for the Rome segment of shootout-packed actioner “John Wick: Chapter 2” –– puts it: “if you use a real bullet on set in Italy, the gun would explode in your hand.”
Stateside, barrels in blank-firing prop guns and real guns are sometimes plugged or blocked to prevent projectiles being fired, but the practice isn’t uniformly mandated by law across the U.S. as it is in most European countries.
France also has rules requiring mandatory plugs in gun barrels, but unlike Italy and other European countries, the plug doesn’t have to obstruct a gun’s entire barrel.
But there’s another, perhaps even more crucial, difference between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to handling firearms on set: It’s absolutely forbidden to bring live ammunition to a European set.
Not only is live ammunition prohibited, but the process is to “check that the gun is empty and safe and show the empty barrel to everyone on set and then hand it to the actor,” explained Cristophe Maratier, a French armorer who’s currently working on the Paris set of “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Maratier, a leading weapons master in France, has worked on a wide range of movies, including Jacques Audiard’s western “The Sisters Brothers.”
The “Rust” tragedy has stunned the international armorers community, added Maratier, who noted that “what happened on ‘Rust’ doesn’t reflect the way things work anywhere; even on low-budget productions and short films.” The reason why the shooting accident was the first of its kind since 1993, he says, is because “no one works like this, neither in Europe nor in the U.S.”
However, while Hollywood certainly has stringent safety standards developed by film studios and labor unions, many U.S. states take a largely hands-off approach, unlike Europe.
As reported by the Associated Press, New York prohibits guns from being fired overnight on movie sets, but doesn’t otherwise regulate their use. Georgia and Louisiana regulate pyrotechnics on movie sets, but have no specific rules around gun use. And New Mexico, where Hutchins died on the Bonanza Creek Ranch set, has no specific safety laws for the film and TV industries pertaining to on-set weapons use.
U.K. safety has gotten “better and better” in last 20 years
In the U.K., the guidelines set out by the government’s Health and Safety at Work Act state that “the use of live ammunition is normally prohibited [on set] unless used under Home Office or Ministry of Defense regulations or under the privileges of the license or approval and permission from the police, eg. on a firing range.”
Christopher Deacon is a partner and international injury lawyer at U.K. law firm Stewarts, the firm that successfully acted on behalf of British stuntwoman Olivia Jackson after she sustained injuries while filming “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” in South Africa.
Said Deacon: “If live firearms are being used, then it’s a requirement to have a registered firearms dealer or license holder present, and that reflects the regulatory requirements in the U.K. for possessing and using a firearm, regardless of the setting in which that’s being used.”
The U.K. has clear guidelines governing the use of firearms, whether real or replica, on set, with several publications available to film and TV crews. In and around London, where a lot of U.K. filming is concentrated, a police presence is usually required for scenes involving live or blank ammunition. The police and the local borough film service have to be provided with a full and comprehensive risk assessment.
Top armorer Richard Howell, from prop providers Foxtrot Production, says the safety situation in the U.K. has been getting “better and better” over the last 20-25 years driven largely by health and safety requirements implemented by broadcasters BBC and ITV across departments, including armory.
“It’s worked really well, because it made us prepare a lot better before we actually went on set,” Howell told Variety. “We had copies of the scripts to go through, we did a breakdown with the firearms, and you’d have an understanding of what the director was requesting. And then you actually write up your story, what the risks were — high, medium, low — and then you send them off. It’s gotten better and better over the years.”
Howell said restrictors or plugs in gun barrels are important to prevent accidents, as well as managing the camera angles so weapons aren’t pointing directly at the camera.
“Nobody ever, ever is in front of a firearm being fired; the cameras are set up to cheat the scene,” said Howell. “You set the whole thing up, and the camera’s just slightly off. It can certainly be remoted [activated by remote control] if there’s any perceived danger, and that’s certainly the decision of the armorer on set.”
So, why are rules in Europe and parts of the U.S. different when it comes to using guns on movie sets?
Ricci chalks it up to cultural differences. “The rapport Americans have with weapons is different. We all know that in the U.S., everyone is free to buy a gun.”
He noted that “until a few years ago, when U.S. productions came to Italy, they found it absurd that the weapons they brought [overseas] had to be deactivated, because then they could no longer function as such.”
A deactivated gun is only usable on set, Ricci said. “You can’t turn around and resell it as a proper weapon.”